Health Update: Stress Leads to Inflammation Which Leads to Illness



Hello everyone:

If you have been reading my blogs over the past 10 years, you know that I repeatedly state that inflammation causes, perpetuates or aggravates every known human illness. There are fundamentally two types of inflammation: purposeful (acute) and non-purposeful (chronic).

The first type is necessary and a natural component of our biochemistry and physiology. As a matter of fact, the first phase of healing is inflammatory as the signals generated by damaged tissue, infection, or altered chemistry will elicit molecular signaling that is needed to begin the healing process…and it is always inflammatory. However, under normal conditions this acute inflammation will wax and then wane. The damaged or malfunctioning or infected tissue will send out messengers that call the immune system to come clean things up. Then, as our immune cells complete their job, the local or systemic environment will contain fewer inflammatory markers and the inflammation will calm down. After that, things should go back to normal as the repair cells do their job and bring things into resolution.

The second type of inflammation is when things do not resolve and a perpetual state of chronic low or moderate grade inflammation chemistry persists. This type of inflammation is degenerative and there are many things that will activate and perpetuate this state…and one of the big ones is stress. This area of biology that seeks to understand the inter-relationships between the mind and the body is called psychoneuroimmunology and here is an interesting article that makes it clear that chronic stress is inflammatory and a major driver of illness.

“Background: Converging and accumulating evidence for the cross-communication among the nervous, immune, and endocrine systems, a field of study known as psychoneuroimmunology, implicates immunological dysfunction as a shared and common mechanism of both mental and physical illness. For example, psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, and anxiety disorders have higher prevalence rates across a spectrum of autoimmune conditions compared to the general population. Additionally, subclinical immunological abnormalities are observed in a variety of psychiatric conditions, with chronic inflammation most extensively studied in the pathophysiology of depression. These observations blur the historical distinctions between mental and physical illness, yet clinical practice remains fragmented and primarily focused on differentially treating individual symptoms.”

Bottom Line: There are several key takeaways from the above paragraph:

  • Both mental and physical illness have a shared/common mechanism in inflammation from a dysfunctional immune system.
  • Physical illness can drive mental illness and vice-versa.
  • Inflammation has been extensively studied in depressive states and is a significant contributor, perpetuator, and possible cause of depression (anxiety and fog too!).

What this means to me as a clinician is that in every case we see, we must look at all drivers of inflammation. This includes mental and emotional stress as well as foods, infections, toxin exposures, sleep, exercise levels, nutritional status, allergies, gut issues etc.

Conclusion: Utilizing a psychoneuroimmunological lens, health psychologists and clinicians can reconceptualize healthcare through integrative treatment approaches and advocacy for comprehensive policy-level reform at both the individual-level of care as well as community-wide prevention approaches.

This is one big reason we often recommend yoga and/or meditation as a component of care. In other words, care needs to be integrated to get optimal results. It turns out that yoga is potently anti-inflammatory and reduces the fight/flight sympathetic nervous system over-drive that pushes up the inflammatory state.

Clinical Application: The present evidence-based framework (mindful meditation methods) could be a secret tool against stress, which scientifically will help us to understand how a particular pathway (activated by meditation or yoga) fosters brain plasticity to overcome various neuropsychiatric illnesses through a nonpharmacological intervention.

PS: Another tool that helps here tremendously is Vagus Nerve stimulation!!! We use this daily in our practice.


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